The Kennedy Center

String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 18

About the Work

National Symphony Orchesra Composer Portraits - Johannes Brahms Composer: Johannes Brahms
© Richard Freed

Both of Brahms's sextets for strings are early works, produced within about five years of each other, which manage to be expansive in nature and yet at the same time fairly tightknit in respect to both structure and expressive device. No. 1 in B-flat, composed between 1858 and 1860, was introduced in Hanover on October 20 of the latter year. Brahms was 27 years old at that time; the first of his two orchestral serenades had had its premiere earlier that month, also in Hanover; the Second Serenade and the First Piano Concerto had been presented in Hamburg the previous winter and, in addition to performances here and there of his early piano works, the original version of his earliest piece in the realm of chamber music, the Piano Trio in B major (Op. 8), was actually given its world premiere in New York as early as 1855. While that Trio was substantially revised many years later, Brahms at 27 was a master craftsman who knew exactly what he wanted to convey in his music, and how to do it with optimal effectiveness.

Both points are brilliantly confirmed in the very opening of the B-flat Sextet, which dispenses with a formal introduction and presents a stunning example of content and medium designed for each other. This opening gesture is for three of the six instruments: first cello playing the flowing melody, second cello providing the bass line to it, and a viola mediating in between, thus producing, as Ivor Keys observes in his useful monograph on Brahms's chamber music, ?a sonority unobtainable from a string quartet.?The tune is then restated by five instruments, and then by all six. By the time we reach the end of the exposition this opening statement has been put through numerous intriguing permutations, the last being a sort of idealized Viennese waltz (a genre Brahms adored in his later years) with pizzicato accompaniment which eventually, at a slower tempo, brings the movement to its radiant conclusion.

The still more warmly colored slow movement is a set of variations in which the emphasis is consistently on the enriched ?low end? of the performing group, one of the especially fetching episodes being the bagpipe imitation supplied by the two violas in the fifth variation. The concise and vigorous scherzo is fairly obvious in its homage to the famous example provided by Beethoven in his Fifth Symphony. Indeed there are passages in both the scherzo proper and the trio (in which the energy level is fully maintained) might almost be taken for a direct transcription. The level of drama, however, never aspires to the model of the Beethoven symphony, and the concluding rondo, so characteristically marked Poco allegretto e grazioso , bears not the slightest relation to ?victory through struggle,? but is ingratiating in its geniality through and through.